Destructive Heresies: Arianism

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Introduction

Challenging orthodox traditions, Arianism sought to abate Jesus of His divinity, rendering the Arian controversy a pivotal moment in the history of the Christian church. For this reason, Arianism often receives designation as the archetypal Christian deviation, a heresy that erodes the very foundation of historic Christianity.1 Unfortunately, the Arian philosophy remains prevalent in modern times, providing the basis for Christian cults in America.2 This paper will outline the fundamental doctrines of Arianism while demonstrating that the theological underpinnings are antithetical to Scriptural teachings and orthodox Christianity.

 

Background

Arius took exception to proclamations of Jesus’ divinity and equivalence with the Father and began unreservedly challenging this fundamental doctrine just before AD 318.3 While Arius’ teachings only survive in fragments and opponent quotations, he clearly asserts that Jesus is a created (albeit exalted) being, rather than the second self-existent person of the Godhead.4 Arius appears to maintain a strict monotheism, developing a theological foundation from the absolute unity and transcendence of God, while concluding there is a logical or theological contradiction in ascribing certain divine attributes to Jesus. In a letter to Alexander of Alexandria, Arius writes, “We acknowledge One God, alone Ingenerate, alone Everlasting, alone Unbegun, alone True, alone possessing Immortality, alone Wise, alone Good, [and] alone Sovereign; Judge, Governor, and Providence of all, unalterable and unchangeable, just and good, God of the Law and the Prophets and the New Covenant…”5

In emphasizing the distinctiveness and indivisibility of God, Arius subtly precludes the extension of these divine attributes to the person of Jesus, running contrary to Trinitarian theology, which recognizes God as one in essence (i.e., homoousios), and three in persons.6 As a result, Arianism denies the eternality, sovereignty, immutability, and divine wisdom of Christ—making Him both ontologically and metaphysically subordinate to the Father (i.e., subordinationism).7 Additionally, divine foreknowledge of Jesus’ righteousness predicates His designation as the “Son of God,” which serves as a heavenly exaltation, rather than an affirmation of Jesus’ divine nature.8 Although this does not represent a comprehensive explanation of Arian theology, these principles provide the fundamental core of Arianism and provide a proper foundation for further analysis.

 

The Old Testament Indicates Plurality within the Godhead

Although the term Trinity does not appear in Scripture, the doctrine provides an appropriate interpretation of special revelation, as the underlying concepts receive considerable affirmation when one analyzes the biblical text holistically.9 Consistent with Arian teachings, the Bible affirms monotheism (cf. Deuteronomy 4:35; 6:4; Isaiah 43:10-11; 44:8; Nehemiah 9:6; 1 Timothy 1:17; James 2:19), declaring all other gods are mere idols (cf. Psalm 96:5).10 However, multiple attestations throughout the Old Testament provide indications of plurality within the Godhead. Initial indications of multiplicity occur as God refers to Himself in the plural (cf. Genesis 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Isaiah 6:8), first manifesting during the creation account as God says, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26a [emphasis added]).

The theme of plurality continues as the Angel of the Lord is clearly identified with God, yet remains a distinct person (cf. Genesis 16:11-13; 18:1-33; Exodus 3:2-6; Judges 13:3-22).11 Exemplification of this principle is most readily apparent in Genesis 16, as the Angel of the Lord appears to Hagar in the wilderness (v.7). As the encounter concludes, the text equates the Angel with Yahweh (יְהוָה֙), stating, “So she [Hagar] called the Lord [Yahweh] who spoke to her: The God Who Sees, for she said, ‘In this place, have I actually seen the One who sees me?’ That is why she named the spring, ‘A Well of the Living One Who Sees Me’” (vv.13-14a).

Additionally, the Scriptures accentuate the Messiah’s divine nature, identifying two separate figures as God or Lord (cf. Isaiah 9:6; Jeremiah 23:5-6; Psalm 45:6-7; 110:1). Isaiah 9:6 demonstrates this concept best, stating, “For a child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on His shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” Finally, interchangeable expressions further support the interpretation of multiplicity within the Godhead, as the Old Testament attributes divine characteristics and activities to multiple individuals simultaneously, occasionally depicting the interaction between the persons (cf., Psalm 110:1; Isaiah 48:16). Therefore, through comprehensive consideration of the Old Testament narrative, it becomes clear that Scripture affirms monotheism, while simultaneously conveying that plurality exists within the Godhead—a consideration that remains completely unaccounted for within Arianism.

 

The New Testament Affirms the Divinity of Jesus

Although the Old Testament provides indications of plurality within the Godhead, justification for Trinitarian doctrine only results from considering the additional developments reflected in the New Testament. While the New Testament reaffirms the bedrock of monotheism (cf. Mark 12:29; 1 Timothy 1:17; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Ephesians 4:6), it harmoniously demonstrates a distinctive unity between three persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (cf. Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 4:4-6; Revelation 1:4-5a).12 From this theological foundation, Scripture portrays Jesus as equal with the Father (cf. John 5:16-47; 8:16; 14:9; Philippians 2:6; Colossians 1:15; 2:9; 1 Corinthians 2:8; Hebrews 1:3; 13:8). This concept is further implied within the introduction of New Testament letters (cf. Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; 1 Timothy 1:2; Philemon 3; 2 Peter 1:2), and doxologies (cf. Revelation 5:13; Romans 9:5; Hebrews 13:21; 2 Peter 3:18).13

Nevertheless, the most compelling declaration of Jesus’ deity comes from Jesus Himself. Throughout the gospel narratives, Jesus claims the title Son of Man (cf. Matthew 8:20; 12:8; 12:32; 12:40; 14:61-62)—an overt reference to the Messianic prophecy of Daniel 7:13-14—while claiming authority over angelic beings (cf. Matthew 13:41; 16:27), and the ability to forgive sin (cf. Matthew 9:6; Luke 5:20; 7:48). The fifth chapter of John provides a prime example of Jesus’ explicit assertion of divinity, as He claims equality with the Father in power (vv.20-21), authority (v.22), and honor (v.23). Jesus also appears to proclaim His self-existence (i.e. aseity) (v.26), before revealing Himself as the righteous judge of creation (v.30), both of which are particular characteristics of Yahweh (cf. Psalm 7:11; 89:14; 90:2).14 These profound claims failed to escape the notice of Jewish officials, as verse 18 explains, “This is why the Jews began trying all the more to kill Him: Not only was He breaking the Sabbath, but He was even calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.” In fact, Jesus’ claims of divinity serve as the primary reason Jewish officials sought His execution (cf. Mark14:60-64; Matthew 26:62-68; John 8:56-59, 10:27-36; 19:6-7).

However, Jesus does not rest the case of His divinity on mere self-proclamation (v.31), rather He performs miraculous works to demonstrate His authority (v.36) while citing John the Baptist (vv.33-35), God the Father (v.37), and the Scriptures (vv.39, 46-47) as independent witnesses that corroborate His testimony.15 Furthermore, Jesus displays the characteristics of omniscience (cf. Matthew 12:25; 26:34; Luke 9:47), and omnipotence (cf. John 11:43; Mark 5:21-43), while professing His omnipresence (cf. Matthew 28:20). Finally, Jesus authenticates these claims—and His Messiahship—through the Resurrection. This event compellingly transformed the mentality of skeptics (e.g. Thomas), nonbelievers (e.g. James), and opponents of Christianity (e.g. Paul), all of whom converted to Christianity following personal encounters with the resurrected Jesus.16 Upon encountering the resurrected Jesus, Thomas boldly proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” which ultimately functions as a fundamental proclamation of Christian belief (cf. John 20:28-30).

Christological assertions must account for these considerations, or else they fail in explanatory power and scope, consequently rendering the theory defective. Christian apologist C.S. Lewis expounds upon this concept, writing,

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him [Jesus]: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.17

As Lewis astutely points out, it is impossible to divorce the concept of Jesus’ divinity from His teaching and actions. As a result, the divinity of Christ receives affirmation throughout the New Testament and represents as an essential principle of orthodox Christianity. Furthermore, this concept only receives adequate explanation within the context of Trinitarian doctrine.

 

Arianism Fails in Explanatory Power and Scope

Upon holistic examination of Scripture, it becomes clear that the Old Testament indicates plurality within the Godhead, while developments in the New Testament reveal three distinct, yet unified persons, equally sharing in a divine nature. Conversely, in justifying their Christological assertions, the Arians appear to select passages advantageous to their position, strategically dissociating them from their proper context, while forcing a literal interpretation of the text (i.e. selective literalism).18 For example, Arius purportedly references Proverbs 8, specifically verse 22, to justify the assertion that Jesus is a created being.19 However, when considered in its proper context, Proverbs 8 expresses the value of wisdom, rather than serving as a Messianic description. The personification of wisdom is merely a literary technique that continues into Proverbs 9, where the author uses the same method to contrast the benefits of wisdom against the detriment of folly.

Dr. Duane A. Garrett, professor of biblical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, clarifies the metaphorical language of this passage, commenting, “In saying that the Lord fathered her [wisdom] at (or ‘as’) the beginning of his ways, Wisdom is claiming to be the first principle of the world and the pattern by which it was created.”20 In addition to disregarding literary conventions and context, the Arian argument fails to address the multitude of Scriptural passages that equate Jesus with the Father, and completely ignore Jesus’ own proclamation of His divinity. For these reasons, Arianism fails in explanatory power and scope, and cannot receive affirmation as a reasonable Christology.

 

Early Church Leaders Considered Arianism Heretical

Although Arian arguments prove lacking in explanatory power and scope, Arianism ascended to notoriety in the early fourth century, requiring church leaders to convene the first ecumenical council to attain consensus throughout the church and address the issue.21 Unfortunately, the council was not without controversy itself. While all of the Christian bishops affirmed monotheism, the authority of the Scriptures, and that salvation of humanity through Christ alone, a disagreement arose over the proper articulation of Christian monotheism when conjoined with the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity.22 However, in AD 325, the Council of Nicaea conclusively rejected Arianism, proclaiming the key orthodox assertions that: 1) Jesus is true God from true God (i.e. God in the same sense that the Father is God), 2) Christ is consubstantial with the Father (i.e. homoousios), 3) Jesus was begotten, not made, and 4) Christ became human for the salvation of humanity.23 In 381, the Nicaean proclamation underwent a slight revision to include Jesus’ birth and suffering under Pontius Pilate and provided clarification regarding the divinity of the Holy Spirit.24

Historian Mark Noll summarizes the essential principle behind the Nicaean decision, commenting, “…The church as a whole came to acknowledge the eternal significance of his [Athanasius’] conclusion—that without full divinity, Christ could not impart the salvation the Bible and the church’s worship testified to.”25 Not only does Arianism fail to provide adequate biblical support for its assertions, in eliminating the deity of Christ, Arian theology erodes the fundamental basis for the salvific atonement while undermining the Scriptural exaltation of Jesus. For these reasons, it is evident that the first ecumenical council correctly identified Arianism as unorthodox.

 

Conclusion

After analyzing the fundamental truth-claims of Arianism, one must conclude the theology is inconsistent with Scripture and represents an unambiguous contrast from orthodox Christianity. In denying the deity of Christ, the theological underpinnings of Arianism are antithetical to Scriptural teachings and orthodox Christianity. As a result, early church leaders adamantly rejected Arianism, classifying it heretical. Acknowledgment of Jesus’ deity remains essential to Christian theology and departure from Trinitarian doctrine results in heretical teaching.

 

Bibliography

Athanasius of Alexandria. On the Incarnation of the Word of God. Translated by T. Herbert Bindley. London: Religious Tract Society, 1903.

Berndt, Guido M. and Roland Steinacher, eds. Arianism: Roman Heresy and Barbarian Creed. Burlington: Ashgate, 2014.

Bettenson, Henry and Chris Maunder, eds. Documents of the Christian Church, Fourth Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Cross, F. L. and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Garrett, Duane A. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Volume 14: The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993.

Grenz, Stanley J. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.

Hanegraaff, Hank. “Did Jesus Claim to Be God?” Christian Research Institute. June 11, 2009. http://www.equip.org/article/did-jesus-claim-to-be-god/.

Hanson, R.P.C. The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Lake, Kirsopp and Robert P. Casey. “The Text of the De Incarnatione of Athanasius.” Harvard Theological Review 19, no. 3 (1926): 259-270.

Letham, Robert and Kevin Giles. “Is the Son Eternally Submissive to the Father? An Egalitarian/Complementarian Debate.” Christian Research Institute. June 11, 2009. http://www.equip.org/PDF/JAF1311.pdf.

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity: Revised and Amplified Edition. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Lienhard, Joseph T. “The ‘Arian’ Controversy: Some Categories Reconsidered.” The Journal of Theological Studies 48, no. 3 (1987): 415-437.

Marshall, I. Howard, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J., eds. New Bible Dictionary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Noll, Mark. Turing Points: Decisive Movements in the History of Christianity, Third Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012.

Pollard, T.E. “The Exegesis of Scripture and the Arian Controversy.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 41, no. 2 (1959): 414-429.

Pollard, T.E. “The Origins of Arianism.” The Journal of Theological Studies 9, New Series, no. 1 (1958): 103-111.

Teske, Roland J. The Works of Saint Augustine, A Translation for the 21st Century: Arianism and Other Heresies (Part I – Books, Volume 18), Edited by John E. Rotelle. Hyde Park: New City Press, 2015.

Weinandy, Thomas Gerard. Athanasius: A Theological Introduction. Burlington: Ashgate, 2007.

Wiles, Maurice. Archetypal Heresy: Arianism throughout the Centuries. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Williams, Rowan. Arius: Heresy & Tradition, Revised Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

Footnotes

  1. Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy & Tradition, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 1.
  2. While modern Christian cults (e.g. the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism) are not directly associated with Arianism, these organizations maintain Arian-like theologies, embracing many of the same Christological concepts that Arius introduced and perpetuated.
  3. Although Arius receives credit for popularizing the theological assertions of Arianism, scholars remain divided as to the precise origins of Arianism; see T.E. Pollard, “The Origins of Arianism,” The Journal of Theological Studies 9, New Series, no. 1 (1958): 103-111; Joseph T. Lienhard, “The ‘Arian’ Controversy: Some Categories Reconsidered,” The Journal of Theological Studies 48, no. 3 (1987): 415.
  4. Mark Noll, Turing Points: Decisive Movements in the History of Christianity, Third Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 44-45.
  5. Quoted in Thomas Gerard Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Burlington: Ashgate, 2007), 52-53.
  6. Trinitarian doctrine affirms 1) monotheism, 2) the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each fully and eternally God, sharing a single divine nature, 3) the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each distinct persons.
  7. Subordinationism runs contrary to Trinitarian doctrine which states that Jesus’ submission to the Father is functional rather than ontological, and His incarnation serves as the ultimate expression of His humility, rather than an innate inferiority to the Father. For additional information regarding the fundamental doctrine of Arianism, see Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy & Tradition, Revised Edition, 100-101; “The Arian Syllogism” in Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church, Fourth Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 42; Mark Noll, Turing Points: Decisive Movements in the History of Christianity, 45; Maurice Wiles, Archetypal Heresy: Arianism throughout the Centuries (reprint edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 7.
  8. F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 100-101.
  9. In fact, Tertullian receives credit for the first utilization of the term toward the end of the second century, with widespread circulation and formal elucidation not appearing until the fourth and fifth centuries. See I. Howard Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, eds., New Bible Dictionary, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 1209.
  10. All Scriptural references are from the HCSB, unless noted otherwise.
  11. Christian theologians refer to this a Theophany or Christophany—a pre-incarnation appearance or manifestation of Jesus.
  12. Although Scripture unambiguously attributes divinity to both Jesus and the Holy Spirit, this paper will focus on the deity of Christ, since this represents Arianism’s fundamental departure from orthodox Christianity. It is also important to note that throughout the narrative, interaction occurs between the persons (cf. Matthew 3:16-17; 11:25-26; 17:5), dispelling the fundamental concepts within Modalism (i.e., Sabellianism).
  13. New Testament doxologies address the Father and Son equally, and occasionally omit the Father to address the Son exclusively, thereby elevating Jesus to equality with the Father. In dismissing the deity of Christ, one inherently charges the Apostles with idolatry.
  14. Jesus also proclaims His eternal nature in John 8:58.
  15. Luke 3:22 and Mark 9:7 record the testimony of the Father.
  16. John 20:24-25 records the skepticism of Thomas, while Luke 24:9-12; 24:36-43 records the skepticism of the other disciples upon hearing reports of the empty tomb and the resurrection of Jesus. Additionally, John 7:1-5 and Mark 3:20-21 indicate James (Jesus’ half-brother), did not believe Jesus was the promised Messiah, yet he converts to Christianity and becomes a leader of the early church following the Resurrection. Finally, Acts 9 recounts the conversion of Paul.
  17. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: Revised and Amplified Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 52.
  18. T.E. Pollard, “The Exegesis of Scripture and the Arian Controversy,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 41, no. 2 (1959): 416-417.
  19. Mark Noll, Turing Points: Decisive Movements in the History of Christianity, 46-47; Guido M. Berndt and Roland Steinacher, eds., Arianism: Roman Heresy and Barbarian Creed, (Burlington: Ashgate, 2014), 9.
  20. Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Volume 14: The New American Commentary, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 108. Dr. Garrett provides further clarification noting, “The meaning of קָנָנִי here is debated. It could mean “acquired”; but, as McKane (Proverbs, 352) points out, this meaning is not appropriate here. Other possible meanings are “create” and “procreate”; Ugaritic usage and the present context (vv. 24–25) support the latter. Even if “procreate” is the meaning, however, this does not establish that a real hypostasis of Wisdom is meant. The “birth” of Wisdom is metaphorical and part of a poetic personification. Cf. also R. Murphy, “Wisdom and Creation,” JBL 104 (1985): 3–11.”
  21. Alexander of Alexandria previously condemned the teachings of Arius in circa AD 320; however, propagation continued and the acceptance of Arianism rose.
  22. Joseph T. Lienhard, “The ‘Arian’ Controversy: Some Categories Reconsidered,” 421.
  23. Mark Noll, Turing Points: Decisive Movements in the History of Christianity, 48-49.
  24. Ibid., 50-51.
  25. Ibid., 64.

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